De­cod­ing ur­ban sprawl

Why does de­vel­op­ment have to mean only "citi­fy­ing" ? SAKUNTALA NARASIMHAN

Down to Earth - - CONTENTS -­views The au­thor is a vet­eran jour­nal­ist spe­cial­is­ing in gen­der and de­vel­op­ment is­sues

A new book on what is wrong with to­day's cities

IN THE last week of June, the Chief Min­is­ter of Kar­nataka sanc­tioned a 6.7 km six-lane fly­over in Ben­galuru that would use 55,000 tonnes of steel “to fa­cil­i­tate a sig­nal-free drive to the air­port”. The project was sanc­tioned de­spite op­po­si­tion from the pub­lic, and even city plan­ners, who said the project “could do ac­tual harm”, was “anti-peo­ple”, and, a “crim­i­nal waste of 1,350 crore of pub­lic money”.

The project typ­i­fies the kind of un­sus­tain­able, mind­less met­ro­pol­i­tan “de­vel­op­ment” that the 2016 State of the World re­port of the World­watch In­sti­tute warns us against. Can a city be sus­tain­able? points out that from Bei­jing to Ben­galuru—both no­to­ri­ous for se­vere air pol­lu­tion and con­se­quent spikes in res­pi­ra­tory ill­nesses— the prob­lem is not lack of fi­nances, but the ab­sence of po­lit­i­cal will, and the blank­ing out of peo­ple’s views in de­ci­sion-mak­ing. The re­port ob­serves the cur­rent trend to blindly adopt projects and path­ways from the de­vel­oped world will ul­ti­mately be coun­ter­pro­duc­tive (see ex­cerpts).

Peo­ple: an af­ter­thought

In less than two gen­er­a­tions, ur­ban pop­u­la­tions have in­creased more than five­fold world­wide; a sev­enth of met­ro­pol­i­tan pop­u­la­tions live in poverty; and, air pol­lu­tion kills over seven mil­lion peo­ple an­nu­ally. With pedes­trian path­ways, trees and parks— es­sen­tial in­gre­di­ents of a mean­ing­ful “liv­abil­ity in­dex”—mak­ing way for high-rise con­do­mini­ums, gated com­mu­ni­ties and park­ing lots in the name of “mod­erni­sa­tion”, peo­ple have be­come “an af­ter­thought” in city plan­ners’ cal­cu­la­tions.

In this un­sus­tain­able de­vel­op­men­tal par­a­digm, the ur­ban poor are for­got­ten by city ad­min­is­tra­tions, though many of them pro­vide es­sen­tial ser­vices to the city. They are even pe­nalised—slums are de­mol­ished or re­lo­cated, as they are viewed as “eye­sores”, negat­ing the fact that these peo­ple were forced to mi­grate to the cities due to the ru­ral dis­tress.

Para­dox­i­cally, there are sus­tain­able al­ter­na­tives that are not only achiev­able, but can also save money in the long-run. These al­ter­na­tives call for more at­ten­tion to health, ed­u­ca­tion, jobs and eq­uity—the four pri­or­ity ar­eas that can help pro­mote a more holis­tic cityscape that com­bines eco­nomic cal­cu­la­tions with so­cial, en­vi­ron­men­tal and eth­i­cal con­sid­er­a­tions. For in­stance, Buenos Aires, which has de­vel­oped a sus­tain­able solid waste man­age­ment pro­gramme or La­gos and Mex­ico, which have de­vel­oped suc­cess­ful rapid tran­sit projects cater­ing to the needs of the ur­ban poor.

These mod­els can be fine-tuned to suit spe­cific city needs. “Cities should serve the needs of the cit­i­zenry, not the other way round” as the con­clud­ing chap­ter on a rights-based ap­proach to trans­form­ing the ur­ban agenda points out. When cit­i­zens’ voices and pref­er­ences are dis­re­garded in the pur­suit of de­vel­op­ment mod­els that pri­ori­tise com­mer­cial con­sid­er­a­tions and “gdp growth” rather than the qual­ity of peo­ple’s lives, the re­sult is dis­gruntle­ment, un­rest and vi­o­lence. The 1986 re­port cau­tioned against threats to se­cu­rity that mil­i­tary forces are ill-equipped to con­front, which are es­sen­tially the so­cio-po­lit­i­cal con­se­quences of wi­den­ing eco­nomic dis­par­i­ties. Thirty years on, these warn­ings have come true—there is a rise in global un­rest, vi­o­lence and ter­ror­ism, spawned by dif­fer­ent kinds of dis­gruntle­ment. This is largely be­cause of a nexus be­tween po­lit­i­cal and busi­ness in­ter­ests that dis­re­gards the long-term costs—to the econ­omy, the en­vi­ron­ment and, ul­ti­mately, the peo­ple.

This 2016 State of the World re­port is the 33rd in an an­nual se­ries from the World­watch In­sti­tute. Each re­port has fo­cused on a spe­cific as­pect of sus­tain­able de­vel­op­ment, but the thrust through­out has been to warn us against the ra­pa­cious use of nat­u­ral re­sources that the cur­rent cap­i­tal­is­tic model is based on.

De­vel­op­ment that pri­ori­tises only gdp can only be detri­men­tal. The book says that eco­nomic growth can be a threat to the earth un­less growth is ac­com­pa­nied by dis­tribu­tive jus­tice. But that is not hap­pen­ing. In­equal­i­ties have widened even as the gdp rises. And gdp growth with­out ethics only wors­ens peo­ple’s qual­ity of lives. One chap­ter ad­dresses en­ergy ef­fi­ciency in build­ings, while an­other analy­ses the dam­ag­ing ef­fect of pri­vati­sa­tion, es­pe­cially of ba­sic needs like wa­ter and nat­u­ral re­sources. The re­port says there are ex­per­i­ments that have worked, in In­dia and else­where, which need to be repli­cated. Ahmed­abad and Pune have won awards for in­no­va­tive tran­sit so­lu­tions; Su­rat trans­formed from a plague-rid­den city to one of the clean­est in In­dia. Porto Ale­gre in Brazil has come up with an “ex­cel­lent ex­am­ple of peo­ple-cen­tred gov­er­nance”. The 2016 re­port calls for the in­volve­ment of the cit­i­zenry as a nec­es­sary com­po­nent for sus­tain­able so­lu­tions.

The re­port says that In­dia’s US $15 bil­lion Smart Cities ini­tia­tive will serve “only the elites” since it will di­vert cap­i­tal from the ba­sic needs of the poor. The re­sult will be in­creas­ing so­cial alien­ation and in­se­cu­rity for all. The re­port could have fo­cused more on devel­op­ing ru­ral ar­eas as part of a so­lu­tion for mak­ing cities sus­tain­able. It is the ut­ter ne­glect of the ru­ral pop­u­la­tion that cre­ates mul­ti­ple prob­lems like mi­gra­tion, slums and pres­sure on in­fra­struc­ture in cities. Why does de­vel­op­ment have to mean only “citi­fy­ing”?


CAN A CITY BE SUS­TAIN­ABLE? (STATE OF THE WORLD) World­watch In­sti­tute Is­land Press | 448 pages | US$ 25.00

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